by Abi Andrews
Erin is a young woman with a calling. She has barely ventured beyond her home town – but she has watched Bear Grylls’s survival programmes on TV. She wonders why it is that men, but never women, get to be intrepid adventurers, which leads her to attempt to prove it is possible for a lone female to voyage through the Arctic Circle, travel across the American continent and survive in the Alaskan wilderness on basic rations.
She takes with her a video camera to record the journey, using it to interview people along the way, with the intention of creating a feminist documentary. But her evolving objectives regarding this film become an integral part of her odyssey – one that is sometimes fraught with danger and would certainly scare her parochial mum and dad witless should she choose to be completely open with them. She is, however, a strong-willed, resourceful character, and develops coping mechanisms such as chiding herself for growing overly attached to temporary travelling companions.
“I am doing this journey alone by and for myself and this tug is the over-socialisation expected of women which traps us, and is precisely what I am striking against.”
As she travels, she ruminates on the solar system, nuclear weapons, Inuit culture, cetaceans, the pill, dreams, history, nothingness and a profusion of diverse subjects. She contemplates the works of writers, travellers, scientists and philosophers like Henry David Thoreau, Jack London and James Lovelock – looking to Rachel Carson for feminal inspiration – and puzzles over what impelled men like Chris McCandless to seek enlightenment through solitude and immersion in the natural world.
Erin may be a deep thinker, but she is also great company – her perceptive humour is often at its funniest when she is at her lowest ebb. There are amusing sub-headings strewn throughout the narrative, with titles like: MANNED SPAcE FLIgHT IS THE TROPHY WIFE OF THE SuPER-PHALLUS, and I found myself chuckling at some of her throwaway remarks.
When eventually she reaches her isolated cabin in Denali, her experiences thereafter remind me of those recounted by Sara Maitland in her 2009 memoir, A Book Of Silence, in which the author spent long periods of time living alone in remote places. Like Erin, she was occasionally perplexed by unsettling, if not downright creepy mental images. There were times when she was unsure if she was awake or asleep, and if the things she saw were real or merely brought about by lack of human contact. So it proves for Erin.
So authentic is the protagonist’s voice that in many ways The Word for Woman is Wilderness seems more non-fiction travelogue than novel. Moreover, if I hadn’t been informed otherwise, I might have assumed Erin was American. Her first-person interior-monologue doesn’t have a particularly British feel to it – in fact, it could be described as mid Atlantic – but I have no doubt this is a generational thing. These days young people use a globalized form of English, and Erin is a mere 19 years-old. The author herself is in her late twenties, while I’m in my early fifties, so our use of language will inevitably differ.
There is much to admire in Abi Andrews’ debut novel. She has created an inspiring character in Erin, one you will think of long after reading the final page. Her book appealed to me at first because I am fascinated by countries like Iceland and Greenland, and I was intrigued by the description of a young woman challenging the archetype of the rugged male explorer. By the time it ended, an abundance of anomalous thoughts were coursing through my brain. I could ask for no more.
“Cetaceans are women’s allies in the war against patriarchy because patriarchy holds the cetaceans down with us. Orcas travel in matriarchal pods. The root of the word dolphin, delphus, means womb.”